“North Korea Out of Control, China Overextended, the United States Arousing Doubts, South Korea Sobering Up”
The 2016 Asan Plenum put “gloom and doom” in the forefront as the “New Normal,” while offering repeated hints of a polarized “New Order” in Northeast Asia. Instead of deepening troubles awakening states to shared interests in “peace and stability,” they are accelerating a trend toward reinterpreting interests in a zero-sum manner. North Korea’s provocative actions are intensifying, China’s rejection of joint moves to enhance security is becoming more blatant, nervousness about the US primaries is palpable, and South Korea’s foreign policy reorientation is now unmistakable. The view from Seoul abruptly upgrades the danger emanating from Kim Jong-un while downplaying the concern about Abe Shinzo. It recasts the US-ROK-China triangle even as many appear perplexed about US policies post Obama and China’s policies under Xi Jinping’s growing hubris. In this synopsis of threads running through the plenum, the dark side stands out in assessments of recent interactions as a spotlight is shone on the way commentaries reveal the deeper forces of regional realignment.
Five factors appeared to contribute most to the somber mood centered on East Asia. First, as the North Korean threat accelerated along with rhetoric suggesting that the country is out of control, alarm was aroused by the hopelessness of some in finding an answer and the discord among others in agreeing to a response. Second, rhetoric from Donald Trump, whose emergence as the Republican presumptive nominee was virtually assured by late April, unnerved Asians and Americans alike, suggesting the possibility of isolationism, inter-alliance tensions, and a collapse of the foundation of regional order. Third, Chinese aggressive moves in the South China Sea, which have resulted in pushback under US leadership, threatened to cause polarization, an arms race, and a divisive atmosphere among great powers that could spill over elsewhere. Fourth, Russian insistence that a new “Cold War” has begun with no end in sight has altered its thinking about Asia too in ways that darken prospects for cooperation. In this time of geopolitical nervousness, a fifth factor is geo-economic uncertainty from China, which has its neighbors all doubting their own chances for economic growth. These forces have refocused concern on how states were allegedly victimized in the past, as recent optimism about their room to maneuver turns to fear of being left helpless in the face of intensifying great power rivalries and military assertiveness.
Amid a wide diversity of panels and presentations, Sino-US exchanges framed what can be seen as an ongoing narrative. For each theme, listeners grew attuned to how this rivalry is overwhelming others and how big, middle, and small powers alike are repositioning themselves. At times, Japan, Russia, and India entered the picture as relevant great powers, but the Sino-US quadrangle with the addition of both Koreas drew, by far, the most attention. Assuming a high degree of shared knowledge about month-by-month details, the plenum managed to keep bringing the focus back to the “big picture.” Amid plenty of “gloom and doom,” interest repeatedly reverted to the question: “just how polarized is the response?” The impression was clear-cut that Washington is the status quo power, now reacting strongly to growing threats, and Beijing is the revisionist power not only in the South China Sea but also in the way it favors Six-Party Talks in which denuclearization is a means to a larger end. Talk of North Korea, economic forces, and Russia could not be divorced from debate about China’s intentions and US responses, often assuming Hillary Clinton in charge.
A trio of US think tank experts with government experience set the goalposts for the panel discussions. John Hamre’s keynote address, Kurt Campbell’s dinner speech, and Victor Cha’s book launch served as reference points in one or more of the four plenary panels. In turn, the plenary panels built a common foundation on some big themes, such as “what is the ‘new normal,’” how does it relate to changing regional order(s), what is the impact of non-traditional security, and what should we make of new developments in North Korea? Among the remaining twelve panels crammed into four time slots, roughly half kept the focus on geopolitics and geo-economics in which East Asia figures heavily. Journalists and editors intervened as moderators, repeatedly pressing the panelists from different countries to respond to their own probing questions and to those from the audience, which often reflected expertise. Recurrent themes revealed a sustained search for answers to a select set of queries.
This synopsis is centered on four recurring questions. First, does “New Normal” mean intensified competition or even polarization? Second, in the competition for a “New Order,” whose rules will prevail and are China and Russia on one side and the United States and its allies on the other? Third, beyond Northeast Asia, what is the geographical and functional scope of the emerging regional order(s)? Fourth, how do North Korea and the nuclear insecurity caused by it shape the emerging order? For this synopsis, left on the margins of these questions, which showcase the Sino-US competition, are two issues that often have taken center stage: South Korea-Japan, which have calmed after the December 28 “comfort women” agreement and now are perceived within a wider context; and South Korea-US relations, which are here covered primarily in the context of multilateral ties to China and North Korea.
Does “New Normal” Mean Intensified Competition or Even Polarization?
The parallels drawn, especially with the run-up to WWI and to Japan’s challenge to stability in East Asia from the 1930s, pointed to widening gaps or even polarization. In comparison to the Cold War and post-Cold War periods, the era we are entering in the mid-2010s was seen as a time of larger forces (the result of technical change affecting both military hardware and software such as social media), outdated and overburdened institutions often discredited under an onslaught of propaganda, and nations losing control as global forces cast doubt on their existing social contracts. In this context, building on the foundation of the existing international system led by the United States appealed to many, but no consensus could be reached on this, as some rejected that system or eyed an opportunity to replace it even amidst disorder.
Fear of entanglement has diminished sharply for US allies. This was obvious for Abe and the Japanese government for several years, and now is apparent for Park Geun-hye and her administration. The most pressing fear now is abandonment owing to a G2 deal with China, some dread, as a way to prevent conflict or because of the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons reaching the US mainland. The flip side of this is a willingness to accept US assertiveness even if it means polarization, although South Koreans seem to anticipate that China will prefer Sino-ROK-US triangular talks as a way to avoid that outcome. Just as Japanese in 2013-2014 feared that Washington may be too inclined to seek a deal with Beijing at Japan’s expense, South Koreans, more than before, doubt US will—not just reacting to recent comments of Donald Trump.
Talk of nuclear weapons for South Korea stimulated some debate. Would the costs be greater than any likely benefits? American commentators thought so. There was discussion too of whether serious discussion in Seoul of this option might influence China or lead US officials to consider reintroducing tactical nuclear weapons. Failure to stop Pyongyang, loss of trust in Beijing, and new doubts about Washington are all shifting 2015’s over-optimism in Seoul in new directions attentive to lasting threats.
An alternative viewpoint held that although North Korea is the central problem both Beijing and Washington were insufficiently serious about it until the fifth nuclear test. Now the former has changed its policy in support of tough sanctions and the latter is less distracted due to the danger of an attack on its mainland. Given that in 1994 US appeals to Beijing to tell Pyongyang that it would not veto a UN resolution led it to do so and Pyongyang to respond by inviting Jimmy Carter, leading to the framework that long operated, and the 2003 US warnings to Beijing that since it claimed it had no control over Pyongyang Washington must take extreme action, leading to the Six-Party Talks framework, the 2016 Sino-US exchanges open the way to a new process. Yet, such optimism was belied by the exchanges between US and Chinese speakers.
Whose Rules Will Prevail in the Competition for a New Order?
As Washington strives to sustain past rules and Beijing casts doubt on some of them, questions were raised whether any regional institutions would bridge the gap. Does China have a path to forge a regional consensus? Can the United States now forge an order capable of uniting states in shaping China’s behavior? Rather than advancing a pivot toward another region, the relative stability of Asia and its high level of growth have led Washington to make its stand here even if demographic trends and China’s slowing economy may alter some prevailing assumptions. That stand rests heavily on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), serving both as a much-needed source of US growth (still not explained to the US people well) and as a force for harmonizing rules rather than ceding to China the lead in making the rules. Disagreeing with this approach, a Chinese outlook gave little scope to regional institutions (ASEAN + organizations have a limited role and military conflict must remain the purview of the Security Council), while insisting that major power cooperation, as in the Six-Party Talks and especially Sino-US talks, is the key to transforming to a new order. On the South China Sea, bilateral talks between the states concerned left little room for regional approaches, whether a court ruling or ASEAN and US involvement. A gap kept appearing between US calls for alliances and multilateralism and Chinese calls for bilateralism, multilateralism without the United States, and great power understanding to change today’s order.
A Russian perspective provided clarity that the post Cold War order must not be allowed to stand, insisting that it caused international disorder and represented an attempt to impose Western values. Non-western countries rejected this order with the exception of the World Trade Organization (WTO)—Russia most easily since it is not limited by a high degree of economic interdependence and sees a great likelihood that confrontation will continue for another decade or longer. In this view, several mega-regions will each have their own order with norms shared regionally, and China and Russia will keep drawing closer to each other despite being the center of separate regional orders. A world so divided will witness a diversification of methods of confrontation—at best, a new balance may be achieved through such clashes, not any universal order. Views by Chinese leave people guessing; those by Russians insist that the old order is dead. Russian thinking demonizes the US plot to westernize the world and regards it as a failure, which will keep drawing Beijing and Moscow closer in a polarized globe and region, while Chinese views were ambivalent about a possible cooperative path with Washington while calling for such a fundamental US change that the result is similar.
A Chinese perspective was only slightly more positive than the Russian one. Denying that US military alliances are effective in the region, it insisted that we are headed to major power conflict—rising insecurity is East Asia’s principal problem—, and the only escape is cooperation based on a turnabout in US policy toward China. This, in effect, means downgrading or abandoning alliances and turning to China for what is called “effective cooperation.” Otherwise, rivalries between major powers are bound to turn uglier and problems such as North Korean threats and maritime disputes are not manageable. This was the crux of Chinese appeals, even if shrouded in optimism.
Trilateralism including Beijing and Washington was raised as a process that might begin to bridge the Sino-US gap. Yet, ASEAN has trouble speaking with one voice, and China does not welcome Japan, South Korea, or other states close to the United States (the number is growing since China is driving more states that way) into talks such as on contingencies facing North Korea or on stabilizing the South China Sea. In holding out hope that Seoul somehow can bring the two big powers together, some comments failed to win support from either the American or Chinese participants.
Reaffirmation of the “old normal” with new touches was the main message delivered from US participants. The operating system (including freedom of navigation) has worked, the US domestic consensus on this region may now be questioned by a split in the Republican Party and by Democrats who reflect a split since the Vietnam War, but it can be largely restored after a realignment in US politics, and countries in Asia are appealing for the “rebalance” to be pursued more vigorously. An integrated and coherent strategy followed consistently under Hillary Clinton would have promise to overcome recent doubts and show what is widely sought for peace and security. In dealing with the South China Sea, a broad coalition and US clarity should draw a clear line. In responding to North Korea, more serious sanctions will further isolate it. This was the main message to dispel the various gloom and doom commentaries.
A coincidence of interests among the vast majority of states, blowback to China as a powerful source of demand for greater US involvement, continued US acceptance of a greater voice for China, and widespread acceptance of the principles that worked in East Asia in the past—all of these suggest that talk of the demise of the old order is, at the least, premature. Less certain is whether China and Russia, perhaps using North Korea’s threats, would associate themselves with this renewed order or not.
What Is the Geographical/Functional Scope of the Emerging Regional Order?
Five labels could be heard at various times in the discussions: Northeast Asia, East Asia, the Asia-Pacific, the Indo-Pacific, and Eurasia. What were the implications of choosing one or another label for the security, economic, and community functions of regional architecture? The most pointed discussion occurred in the panel on Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific; so we start there. Some might wonder why there is a need to probe beyond acceptance of a multi-layered geography where states simultaneously operate in narrower and wider contexts. Yet, when one considers the geopolitical balance of power, the geo-economic implications of different patterns of integration, and the community identities of different types of regional consciousness, then it is clear that geographical frameworks matter. Australia and India are keen on an Indo-Pacific framework. China and the United States increasingly seem to welcome it too but approach it from different angles in how they link the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Australia can use the Indo-Pacific idea as a rare chance to place itself at the center in a maritime superhighway with China and India as two poles and Japan joining with the United States as welcome actors in the inclusive Indian Ocean. As a voice in both TPP and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Australia would welcome a merger of the two after each is launched as well as a coherent strategic system, reassuring India about China’s return to the Indian Ocean. The East Asian Summit can be an institutional expression of this ideal. India through its “Act East” also seeks an expression of it doing more with Southeast and Northeast Asia. More than Australia, it sees itself as an independent actor and as a nexus between parallel ideas: a broad maritime space and a continental, Eurasian space—catching up to China in turning to Central Asia to realize this second ideal. In opposition to competing blocs, it seeks to revisit historic ties, boosting its economy. A “special, privileged partnership” with Russia, as it “turns to the East, reflects the independent lens with which India views these regional vectors. Eagerness to have a major role in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) corresponds to its vast infrastructure needs, while hesitation on “One Belt, One Road” awaits details and on “values diplomacy” awaits discussion.
The Sino-US divide on the scope of regionalism was rather muted at the plenum in comparison to the heated rhetoric found elsewhere. While on some occasions the focus is on the South China Sea, this exchange largely centered on India, as both put it into their scope as a partner. Calling it the “pivot of Asia,” one side highlighted its advancing strategic relations with Washington and Tokyo and drew a contrast with China’s tightening ties with Pakistan including large arms exports and the central role in “One Belt, One Road” to date. High expectations were cited for India as the “budding superpower” over the next 20 years parallel to China’s rise over the past 20 years. There was talk that Washington sees India as central to its aspirations, as the anchor to a balance of power from democracies and an open, liberal order, and as the swing state in the development of regionalism. Obviously, the Indo-Pacific label fits this image of India’s role well. The alternative of “Asia for the Asians,” it follows, would leave India at the mercy of China’s quest for hegemonic control.
In contrast, a Chinese viewpoint saw India as prioritizing geo-economics and found China to have limited strategic intentions in the Indian Ocean, given the dominant role of the United States there. It was skeptical of the prospects of “One Belt, One Road” and stressed the complementarity of China and India, economically. If there is little effort to extend China’s maritime power into the Indian Ocean and confidence that India will seek strong relations for economic reasons, the concept of the Indo-Pacific region can be welcomed as a support for RCEP, which then can join with TPP.
Other Chinese references to China’s aspirations and the Sino-US divide were far less sanguine. Without agreeing that China is seeking to forge its own regional order, one respondent insisted that a new order is needed and is coming as China supplements the existing order with new institutions. Another expected polarization to define the geopolitical landscape ahead. Mostly, however, when it came to the lines of division, the Chinese left their position vague, suggesting that Washington and Beijing need to work out their different ways of thinking through bilateral talks, while opposing the US effort to sustain alliances and defense partnerships and to connect them as an unwelcome geographical framework without countering with any clarity about an alternative framework. A more forthright assertion of a Eurasian framework in opposition to the US-led one came from the Russian side, welcoming China’s role.
Choice of terminology has often unrecognized salience. Northeast Asia became a prevailing theme due to repeated discussions of the Korean Peninsula, but East Asia tended to be eclipsed by the US welcome to the Indo-Pacific without turning away from the Asia-Pacific prism, and the Sino-Russian exploration of Eurasia despite the Chinese acceptance of East Asia as well as some tolerance for the Indo-Pacific. In selecting among these, one was revealing an attitude toward what should be the US role, where India should be aligned, and how serious will Sino-Russian relations be.
How Are North Korea and Nuclear Insecurity It Causes Shaping a New Order?
Many spoke of a new order taking shape in Northeast Asia under US leadership, but Chinese and Russians disputed their thinking. Typical was the comment of a South Korean in opposition to a Chinese stance that alliances are bringing a huge dividend to the region. Until China finds a way to assure Asian neighbors, having failed in the Six-Party Talks to provide an answer, they will seek out Washington. Its failure even to discuss what to do in case of an accidental conflict, let alone other contingencies, was seen by some as irresponsible. While Chinese argued for moving quickly to new talks with North Korea, Americans and South Koreans insisted that no talks are now possible until an effective sanctions regime causes enough pain in North Korea for it to change its calculus, as some hinted that China too would need to change its own strategic calculus, enforcing and letting Kim Jong-un know that “stability” does not mean reassurance that he need not worry much about pressure given its support.
The search for common ground in managing and countering North Korea found no signs of progress in the various exchanges involving Chinese and other participants, as some suggested that time is running out given the North’s increasing threat to the US mainland. While Chinese insisted that there is no military solution (negotiations are the only way forward), others responded that, at present, the only pathway to revive negotiations is to convince Pyongyang through qualitatively new sanctions patiently enforced. Chinese were reassuring about the enforcement of resolution 2270, which was followed by China’s executive order limiting the import of minerals and requiring more documentation for what was allowed, including through the resolution’s humanitarian exceptions. Some suggested that Chinese business now is eager to avoid the red tape in dealing with North Korea, limiting trade further. Yet, Chinese gave little indication that further North Korean provocations (a fifth nuclear test was anticipated) would result in ratcheting up sanctions or strategic consensus.
The principal message from Chinese is that no major change has occurred in China’s policy toward North Korea: “stability” (regime preservation? Insistence on keeping the North as a buffer and balancer against the US alliances?) takes precedence over denuclearization. Some non-Chinese anticipated that Pyongyang would accelerate its nuclear weapons and missile development before sanctions caused deep pain, and then it would launch a charm offensive, agreeing to rejoin the Six-Party Talks with the goal of trading some sort of freeze (verification?) for a peace regime and “abandonment of US hostile policy” (military exercises followed by other bulwarks of the US-ROK alliance as well as diplomatic and economic breakthroughs without denuclearization). In such an exchange, Pyongyang would see a freeze as the end of the denuclearization process in contrast to the insistence of Seoul that it be just the start of the process. Disagreement over the timing and stages of mutual concessions would leave ample room for Beijing to press for its own long-term strategic gains.
The long-standing saga of nuclear tensions over North Korea was recognized to have some new elements: the unpredictable new leader in Pyongyang, his impact in antagonizing China, the greater threat posed to the United States, and the tightening US-ROK-Japan coordination. Optimists held that the new urgency in Washington and Beijing has raised the priority of finding a common strategy. Pessimists see one side moving toward the sort of tough sanctions imposed on Iran with similar patience to allow them to take a toll over several years before they would pave the way to joint diplomacy, while China and Russia reject such a strong coalition to corner the North under the pretense that this is meant to induce regime collapse, when what really is bothering them is that it would be targeted at denuclearization without a favorable balance of power to suit their presumed geopolitical interests in Northeast Asia. One intriguing prospect is that Beijing now blames Pyongyang more than Washington for destabilizing the region and is prepared to deliver further shocks to the former (its response in resolution 2270 was one) should Pyongyang’s course not change. Yet, many were skeptical after China built in lots of discretion in resolution 2270 and foresaw many ways Chinese companies could bypass the sanctions.
While Washington and Seoul prefer to work with Beijing, a lack of common ground led experts from both to discuss secondary sanctions not welcomed by Beijing with advances in missile defense inversely related to the need for preemption in the case of deterrence not working due to the North Korean regime preoccupation with its own survival rather than the survival of its people and willingness to contemplate collective suicide as a last ditch move. If the North’s effective intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are still years away and missile defense advances quickly, the chances of preemption are lower. At one end, the message was no freeze diplomacy is meaningful without verification of declared, secret enrichment facilities, and that Obama has tried a lot to engage the North; so that the answer is not new US engagement policies. At the other end, the message is to trust that North Korea is shifting to economics as the priority, realize that it proved in the 1990s bad times will not bring collapse or denuclearization, and agree to talks that offer assurance of regime survival and economic assistance, thus altering the North’s calculus. Bridging this divide in reasoning proved impossible.
The Sino-US-North Korean triangle has long been a test of Sino-US relations and whether the existing regional order is to be sustained, modified, or overturned. At times, such as in 2014-2016, Sino-South Korean relations serve as a platform able to test Chinese intentions no less than Sino-US relations. In either case what is at stake is Chinese relationship with North Korea: is it fundamentally changing? If change is serious, what are the implications for China’s ties to these deeply concerned states? Boosting ties with Park Geun-hye, Xi Jinping had mixed motives, panelists argued. One aim noted was to send a signal to Kim Jong-un that he was not showing respect to China, as his predecessors generally had done or China’s increasing regional clout warranted. Another aim mentioned was that Xi was trying to undercut the US-ROK alliance as well as the already troubled relations between Park and Abe Shinzo. The true test of China’s intentions, on which Park had invested her prestige even to the point of irritating some in Washington, would be a fifth nuclear test by North Korea.
Key terms that arose in discussing China’s posture included: stability, cooperative spirit, interests, and self-defense. By prioritizing opposition to actions that could do harm to “stability,” Chinese lumped together responses to North Korean moves and pressure that China could interpret as threatening regime change with the moves of the North. This “evenhandedness” was seen by many as more harmful to measures to bring North Korea to the negotiating table with denuclearization on the agenda than to the North’s nuclear ambitions. Even in the sanctions imposed in Resolution 2270, the loopholes demanded by China to do no harm to the North Korean people have left much skepticism that enforcement of tough sanctions will actually occur, despite some evidence that substantial enforcement is under way. There is talk that North Korean ships are flying under other flags and finding other ways to bypass the sanction regime. Given the deep residue of blame to China for watering down past sanctions resolutions and enforcing them poorly—in sharp contrast to the sanctions imposed on Iran and their impact in spurring negotiations—, skepticism over what China really means by “stability” repeatedly resurfaced in Plenum panel discussions. The counterarguments that without denuclearization there cannot be stability and that Kim Jong-un gains confidence from China’s stance that he can get away with his provocations do not appear to have found a receptive audience on the Chinese side.
Two other disputed themes were contingency planning and peace regime. Failure to prepare for crisis management—even if just to exchange information about plans—was disappointing to many who sought China’s agreement. In turn, Chinese calls for parallel peace regime and denuclearization talks drew skepticism that Pyongyang only cares about the former and has not abided by past promises; so even if it were to agree—doubtful at present—, the latter goal would be ignored by it. The US side was not averse to peace treaty talks as long as the sequencing was such that there would be no chance that the North would find acceptance as a nuclear state. Chinese interest in a peace regime—discussions that the North seeks to hold without South Korea—leaves uncertain its priorities. In 2013 after the North’s third nuclear test China seemed to toughen its stance only to prioritize “stability” again in 2014, and in late 2015 China further relaxed pressure on North Korea before agreeing to greater pressure in early 2016. Inconsistency reduces confidence in today’s tough sanctions. Some see China in 2009 deciding to decouple Sino-North Korean relations from the process of denuclearization as the root of the problem, which only belatedly with Resolution 2270 China may be rethinking but not necessarily in a far-reaching way.
Comments by Chinese speakers that handling of the North Korean issue is sensitive and depends on a sincere and “cooperative spirit” implied linkages to panelists from other countries. While many have repeatedly argued that China should see it as in China’s own national interest to join in a five-country coalition to bring the North to Six-Party Talks prioritizing denuclearization, hints of tradeoffs assume that China is doing a favor to the United States and expects concessions elsewhere in return. Even if official diplomacy avoids mention of such linkages, their presence raises concerns. Talk of hurting China’s “interests”—whether the Korean Peninsula is or is not a “core interest”—hints at other linkages, especially with the balance of power in the region. Left unclear in exchanges touching on this theme is what are the limits of these interests in case of reunification—no US troops north of the 38th parallel, no US-ROK alliance, or even no end to the North Korean regime unless a buffer state with a system welcomed by China and at odds with the democratic ROK results.
Finally, Chinese refusal to agree to talks on Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) while rejecting explanations that it is for “self-defense” indicates that Beijing is more interested in weakening South Korea and its alliance than in showing North Korea that deterrence is strengthening. Suggestions that if THAAD is deployed—as seems likely—China’s ties with the ROK will significantly deteriorate as will Sino-US relations and polarization will deepen are seen as a pretext, which has led China to dig itself into a corner without striving to find a way to reduce polarization on a shared challenge that should increase trust.
The “New Normal” in Northeast Asia is anxiety about growing threats of conflict, frustration about the inability to find common ground between China and the other states, and futility at repeated discussions that fail to narrow the widening divide. Chinese and Russian comments mostly called for reordering Asia, the South Korean comments prioritized North Korea and mixed pessimism with calls for either more assertive US moves or more US support for trilateralism with China, and most on the US side found hope in reinforcing the “rebalance” in response to widespread appeals in the region. The divergence between many participants and some of the Chinese speakers proved to be the biggest barrier to dispelling the somber mood. Yet, the respectful atmosphere for delving deeply into the differences of opinion raised by speakers from diverse countries gave a lighter air to the plenum than the serious matters at hand and the ominous shadow cast by North Korea seemed to warrant.